Sengakuji: Center of loyalty and revenge
It was a snowing in Edo on the morning of the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of the Genroku era (January 30, 1703 by the Western calendar). A ronin, or masterless samurai, named Kuranosuke Oishi set out across the city to rendezvous with other ronin on a secret mission. Oishi was masterless due to unfortunate events in 1701 resulting in the death of his feudal lord, Naganori Asano, the Lord of Ako (in what is now Hyogo Prefecture).
Lord Asano had lost his temper inside Edo Castle and drawn his sword on another lord, Yoshinaka Kira, in a castle corridor known as Matsu-no-Oroka (a stone marker in the East Garden of the Imperial Palace marks the site). While Kira was only slightly injured, just by drawing a sword inside Edo Castle, Asano had committed an unforgiveable breach of protocol. He was ordered to commit ritual suicide outdoors (ordinarily a punishment reserved for base criminals). His grave is on the grounds of Sengakuji temple on the southern outskirts of Edo. Upon his death, Asano’s family estates were confiscated and his retainers, known as the Ako-gishi, became ronin.
What followed is one of the most famous stories of feudal Japan, a tale that has been dramatized into kabuki and bunraku plays under the title of “Chushingura.” In English, it’s probably best known as “The 47 Ronin.” In the 20th century, at least six Japanese movies were made based on this story, and Hollywood is supposed to be working on a version featuring Keanu Reeves (the latest reports are that due to production delays, we won’t be seeing this for at least another year). The central themes of loyalty and revenge led to the story being censored at times even during the Edo Period, and supposedly also by GHQ immediately after World War II.
As the gravesite of Asano, Sengakuji features in both the beginning and the end of the story and is the best place to visit to immerse yourself in the drama of loyalty and revenge that it tells.
But let’s get back to the story (greatly condensed), which will eventually lead us back to Sengakuji.
At first, the Ako-gishi appealed for justice for Asano, since they felt that Kira was equally culpable in the incident, yet he went unpunished. When it became clear that this appeal was fruitless, the Ako-gishi appeared to scatter; some becoming monks, others becoming tradesmen or manual laborers.
In fact, this was all a ruse. Forty-seven of Asano’s most loyal retainers, led by Oishi, were secretly planning their revenge on Kira, but knew they could only get close to Kira if they first lulled him into a false sense of security.
Oishi himself went so far as to divorce his wife, sending her and their two younger children away (his teenage son chose to remain with him). He then appeared to fall apart completely, drinking and carousing. Meanwhile, others of the group, disguised as tradesmen, had infiltrated Kira’s mansion, acquainting themselves with its layout and his lifestyle, so that they could prepare their revenge attack.
Finally, nearly two years after Asano’s death, the 47 ronin were ready to take their revenge. And in the early dawn that snowy morning, the 14th day of the 12th month, they acted. Divided into two groups, they invaded Kira’s mansion from the front and back entrances, preventing his escape. At first, they couldn’t find Kira, who heard their scuffles with his guards and hid himself in a closet. But Kira couldn’t stay hidden for long. He was found and beheaded.
Sending one of their number to Ako Castle to deliver the news of the revenge, the remaining 46, carrying Kira’s head, marched 10 kilometers through Edo to Sengakuji, to lay in front of Asano’s grave both Kira’s head and the dagger that had severed it from his body. By now it was daybreak and this parade attracted quite a bit of attention.
The ronin knew that the price of this act of revenge would be their own lives. They were all sentenced to death (including Oishi’s teenage son) but were permitted to commit seppuku. Their graves are also to be found on the grounds of Sengakuji. So let’s pay a little visit.
As you emerge from exit A2 of Sengakuji subway station (Toei Asakusa Line), turn to the right. Although the main road bends to the right, straight ahead up a narrower lane you will see the green copper roof of the outermost gate of Sengakuji temple. Dubbed the “Middle Gate,” both it and the “Main Gate” behind it date to the 1830s. To enter the temple grounds, you pass through a small gate to the right of the Main Gate. Just outside the gate is a statue of Oishi, the principal architect of the revenge, holding a scroll listing the names of all 47 ronin.
Once you have entered the temple grounds ahead of you, across the compound is the main temple, a post-war reconstruction whose predecessor was destroyed in the war. Unless you wish to worship, I recommend that you turn left upon entering the temple grounds. The graves of Asano and his 47 loyal retainers are at the back of the temple ground, straight ahead of you.
As you pass to the left of a fairly modern mall, you will see on the right three old plum trees and a very large boulder. Legend has it that one of these trees and the boulder were stained with Asano’s blood when he committed seppuku. Just beyond the plum trees is a small well covered with a wire grate. When the ronin brought Kira’s head to place in front of Asano’s grave, they stopped here to wash it.
Continuing on, you’ll climb a few stairs and pass through another gate to enter the graveyard. This gate was relocated from Asano’s former home in the late 19th century.
The graveyard contains the graves of Asano and his wife, as well as of the 46 ronin who came here after Kira’s death. There are also markers here for the 47th, who travelled to Ako after the incident and was not sentenced to death, as well as for one more who had wanted to participate in the attack but was unable to. There is a signboard in Japanese showing which grave is where. Just inside the gate is a small building where visitors can buy incense to light at the grave of their particular favorite ronin. Bundles of incense sticks are also sold for those who wish to leave one at each grave.
Following your visit to the graves, also take a little time to visit Ako-gishi Kinenkan, a new building on the right as you exit the graveyard gate. This museum (admission 500 yen), opened less than 10 years ago to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the revenge attack, contains various artifacts of Asano and the ronin, as well as depictions of the incidents, a map of the route travelled by the ronin on their vendetta, and displays on the plays and movies telling the Chushingura story.
Just as you enter, there is a small theater with several videos available. Upon request, they can be played in English. They provide explanations of the protocol of Edo Castle, as well as a history of the events of the 14th day of the 12th month.
When you have finished with the new museum building, be sure to visit the second floor of the building behind the plum trees. There you will find 1/3 to 1/2 sized wooden figures of each of the 47 ronin. The figures are wearing period dress, colorfully painted, and many have extremely interesting facial expressions.
Although the Chushingura story has been censored over the years and is not without controversy as historians try to analyze its true significance, it is a tale that continues to resonate in Japan, as you will realize when you visit Sengakuji. It is rare to find yourself the only visitor and even if you are, you will probably see multiple sticks of incense burning in front of each grave, implying recent visitors. It is particularly popular around this time of year.